In 2015 you will be able to research your German roots using Archion, a platform which offers access to digitized protestant German parish records.
My blog post on the beta test of Archion was well received among German readers. I also noted a significant number of visitors from abroad, especially the U.S. and Denmark, and decided to give an overview in English for people not familiar with German.
Church records are the pillars of German genealogy research, at least until the 19th century. While some books date back until the 16th century, most of them start in the second half of the 17th century. During the Thirty Years’ War, which ended in 1648, a huge number of older sources were destroyed. Records from later centuries were partly destroyed during World War II, especially in eastern Germany, and in former east German districts now belonging to Poland or Russia. The total number of German protestant church books is assumed to be 200.000 (Internet Archive link).
Today, church registers are usually kept in the parish, or in church archives, where they often can be accessed from microfilm. So-called Kirchenbuchduplikate (church book duplicates), created during the 19th century for administrative purposes, are available in state archives. You might know these duplicates from FamilySearch, where they are partly available on microfilm. With a few limited exceptions, online research is not possible.
Archion is about to change that. The company behind Archion is named Kirchenbuchportal GmbH and was founded by member churches of the Evangelical Church in Germany in 2013. This federation consists of twenty churches, but not all take part in Archion. This is important to know, as church records will only be available from churches that choose to participate. A map by Archion lists participating churches in blue (Internet Archive link).
Every church has its own church archive, and every archive has its own digitizing strategy. Some churches are digitizing church records from microfilm; others are working from the original documents. Some already have digitized their resources on a large scale, others have not. Some plan to digitize, while others don’t talk about their digitizing efforts. At least one church has to ask every single parish for permission to digitize as the church book belongs to the parish. Some parishes are not interested in digitizing church records at all. We also can safely assume that every single archive is on a limited budget.
To make a long story short: Don’t expect all the records from every church marked blue on the map to be available when Archion starts. Locate your ancestors’ hometown and use the search or browse feature (free of charge) to identify the parish records you are interested in. If these records are highlighted in green, the records are available online. As a rough estimate, 30% of the records from the participating churches will be available, with different levels of completeness from church to church (ranging from 0 to 100 percent).
Please see this commented screenshot for basic navigation:
The records are displayed in a simple viewer. You navigate by either choosing a thumbnail in a side menu or choosing a page number. You can magnify records in three to five steps (depending on the archive). You can bookmark pages and download the current view as a pdf document.
You may be used to searching for names on FamilySearch, Ancestry and other record websites in order to access records. This won’t be possible on Archion as there are no indexed and/or transcribed records. Optical character recognition (OCR) is not an option for Kurrent writing. Archion plans to implement a basic indexing feature sometime in the future.
Viewing documents can be cumbersome. The quality ranges from perfect to unreadable. There are only limited zoom options available. The size of the viewing area and fullscreen possibilities are limited. Even after reworking the viewer (Internet Archive link) to make the viewing area a little broader, a lot of documents still can’t be displayed completely and be readable at the same time. This makes it impossible to scan pages quickly for entries as you have to scroll several times. Two archives added prominent watermarks in the center of the documents. Documents can’t be saved the usual way; they can only be downloaded in a limited number through site functionality.
This screenshot from beta testing shows a watermarked record, scanned from microfilm, on a 15.4″ notebook screen with the browser in fullscreen mode. That’s the closest you get to a full-page view.
Archion’s interface will eventually be available in English as well (right now it is only partly translated).
The following membership options will be available:
For private use: either 19.90€ monthly (approx. 21 USD or 14 GBP, includes 50 downloads), 178.80 EUR yearly (approx. 187 USD/127 GBP, includes 600 downloads) or 20 days’ access (to be used within a year) for 59.90 EUR (62 USD/43 GBP, includes 50 downloads). For business use, monthly access costs 199 EUR (208 USD/141 GBP, includes 500 downloads) and yearly access 1788 EUR (1875 USD/1271 GBP, includes 6000 downloads). You can pay by credit card or PayPal.
Archion is set to start on March 20th 2015. If relevant documents exist for your ancestry, this might be the best opportunity to research them for years. Save the date, but know the obstacles.
Do you have questions? Drop me a line, add a comment or write me on Twitter. I’ll try to answer general questions regarding Archion in a Q&A style in this or another post. Please understand that I can’t conduct individual research. I am not affiliated with Archion or any other commercial genealogy website in any way.
Thanks to Jan for proofreading this post.